Can community mediation inform conflict resolution approaches in Burundi?

Can community mediation inform conflict resolution approaches in Burundi?

This overview of community mediation in Burundi teaches mediators about the functioning models for local conflict resolution led by Burundians themselves, raises awareness about the importance of cultural and context-related conditions, identifies types of solutions and success criteria and promotes a harmonisation of complementary conflict resolution approaches in order to provide a network of multiple service offers to Burundians in conflict.

 Suggested Reading Conflict Background GCCT

By Karoline Caesar

The recently resumed conflict between political elites in Burundi has raised questions about the effectiveness of measures to prevent violence. The parliamentary and presidential elections in June and July, respectively, served as a catalyst for violence with rivalry over political power and access to the scarce resources, the high levels of poverty, a dysfunctional justice system, and patronage and corruption being at the roots of the problem.

Elections are associated with instability because they have so far exacerbated the power struggle between the country’s elites. In the country’s post-colonial era, cyclical waves of violence related to elections and power imbalances erupted, especially in 1966, 1972, 1988, 1993. A one-party system with military leaders as heads of state had been the only form of “stability” so far known by the Burundian people since the abandonment of the pre-colonial monarchy who had assured power balance since the 17th century.

While Burundians are yet to come to terms with past mass atrocities, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in 2014 was met with mixed reactions. Even worse, the current crisis foreshadows new political cleavages between different political parties and factions of parties.

Since unreliable governmental structures, repressive measures from various groups and fear of violence have long persisted, many community-based self-help initiatives have stepped in to fill the gap in legal or political structures. Funded by international NGOs or churches, local organisations offer services to the communities such as conflict management, community dialogue facilitation, rural development, microcredit and trauma healing. One of the services, mediation, is also offered by local administrators, the traditional mediators “Bashingantahe”, and a number of faith-based organisations. Also at the top-level of society, quiet diplomacy and political mediation by Burundians, discreetly supported by external funds, helped to reach peace agreements before 2000, 2008 and ahead of elections. The UN Security Council Resolution 2171 from August 2014 also stresses the need for more mediation as a tool for conflict prevention and resolution. Reason enough to consider the role of community mediation in solving the conflict.

Several community mediation projects in Burundi documented lessons learnt and challenges, and shed light onto the conditions for successful mediation. One of the astonishing observations by a project supported by the German NGO, Weltfriedensdienst, was that perpetrators from the civil war, while interrogated in court, preferred to go to jail and continue denying their crimes and only started talking openly about their wrongdoings when entering a mediation process, even willing to pay life-long reparations to the victims.

Which principles of mediation can make possible what a trial in court cannot? And under which conditions can mediation be effective? Where are its limits?

Mediation offers a process which is controlled by the conflicting parties. In situations of war and high tensions, this may offer a feeling of safety. Opponents are seen as experts of their conflict and thus as responsible for the solution. At the same time, a mediator helps to create a climate of acceptance and trust by emphatically listening to both parties and paraphrasing messages. As mediation leads to individual answers, depending on the conflicting parties’ needs and interests, the outcome is open. The mediator – as a process expert – facilitates the conversation between the parties, helps to uphold rules of communication such as mutual respect and listening to the other.  Finally, mediation offers an experiential learning process where awareness of needs – of one’s own and the opponent’s – is raised. The aim is to achieve consensus, a win-win-solution. In Burundi where almost every family has been touched by the conflict, this idea may help to motivate conflicting parties and the whole community to gain a more holistic understanding of their conflict. The upholding of confidentiality, impartiality and integrity on behalf of the mediators are necessary preconditions, especially in a small country like Burundi. However, also some form of recognition by the community can help, and it serves as a learning point and can motivate group cohesion. This is why in rural areas in Burundi, the community is present during the mediation sessions, it supports the process by listening, providing witness reports and following-up on the solution found.

The mediator has to know the community very well and also understand the specific Burundian subtle communication, where often messages are communicated in a context-oriented way. Harmony is so important that the truth may be left unsaid until after the whole process is over, and the meaning of words can differ depending on regional dialects of Kirundi Beyond being informed about facts and having tools at hand, knowing the community means being deeply connected to it. Culturally, this is expressed by the idea of Ubuntu: “I am because you are”. The mediator therefore should also be recognised to be a personality of high morals, impartiality and integrity. One way to demonstrate integrity very practically is to offer mediation free of charge, another to stick to the rather formal mediation procedure. But also the mediator’s position in the conflict of the country is relevant for the outcome of the talks. Many people chose mediators because they worked in a mixed team with different social backgrounds and were known for having peacefully lived together with others, even in times of crises.  Many conflicting parties wanted to learn about mediation after their case was solved and joined the mediator teams.

Another way of encouraging conflicting parties to say the truth, even during mediation, was by upholding the principle of voluntariness throughout the entire process: any party including the mediator can put the mediation on hold, withdraw completely from it or agree to use other means of conflict resolution at any time. Thus, mediation processes may even be interrupted and taken-up again at a later point – processes in a community mediation project can last from under a month up to several years. Community mediators also cooperate closely with local courts, traditional mediators “Bashingantahe”, local administrators and human rights organisations providing referral services if wished by the conflicting parties. As it is a necessary precondition that the conflicting parties are psychologically stable enough that they can speak for themselves and take responsibility for their actions while many people still suffer from wartime trauma, a personal trauma healing process may precede the mediation.

Another criteria for mediation to succeed is that the the underlying needs are revealed and taken care of. This is why at the grassroots level, the issue of poverty is also dealt with. Some mediation processes include participation in money saving groups or community fields where income generation and trust building are combined. Some saving groups manage to open small businesses together, thereby also offering an alternative income to subsistence farming. Corruption and clientelist networks – conflict drivers in Burundi – cannot be overcome, but are at least counterbalanced by such efforts.

To be in positive relationships with all local stakeholders has been another criteria for acceptance – including human rights lobbyists as well as governmental institutions. Mediators were enabled to monitor violence in their districts, to join civil society networks and to negotiate with armed groups.

Looking at the issue of land conflicts, respect for individual solutions was crucial for reaching common ground. Results included sharing, restitution or enlarging land by purchases of surrounding plots, followed by a new subdivision taking into account the families’ needs. During a time of rising tensions between returning refugees and residents over land conflicts, the number solved by community mediators doubled, and mediators have frequently been called to help solve conflicts where courts had failed.

The limits of community mediation are time constraints and external interventions combined with the continued poverty. In Burundi, institutions such as the National Commission on Land and Goods (CNTB), set up according to the Arusha Peace treaty to solve disputes between returning refugees and residents, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as events such as elections, are often regarded as threats to the solutions found at community level. The CNTB, for instance, reopened already solved and certified land conflicts, and tensions around the issue of land again broke out, especially in the south, starting in 2012/13. While community mediators tried to monitor tensions and to engage in peacemaking with the conflicting groups, the number of cases exceeded their capacity, police used force to assert the CNTB’s decisions and the level of conflict escalated to a point where talks were hardly possible. An effort by the peace project’s team to initiate dialogue between community mediators and the CNTB regional representative provided an intermediary solution.

In order to end the cycle of violence in Burundi, local advice on Burundian cultural and economic particularities of conflict resolution should be taken seriously, mediation should play a more active role in the process of transitional justice, and mediation techniques should be taught to a much larger percentage of the population.

Karoline Caesar currently works as independent consultant in Berlin, Germany, after having served as Technical Advisor for a community mediation project from 2011-2015. The project is carried out by Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation under the Cross (MIPAREC) and supported by Weltfriedensdienst.  Previously, she had worked on citizen participation and civic education in Malawi, Zambia and Germany.

380 peace committees in twelve districts of Burundi offer mediation, dialogue facilitation, and self-help activities to their communities. The project is part of several larger networks of peacebuilding organisations, among others the Quaker Peace Network and the German Civilian Peace Service. More information can be found by clicking here or by contacting

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